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sorry guys but due to real life commitments this week’s scheduled look at the first TMNT movie is pushed back to next week and instead today we’re looking at the anime, enjoy.

As regular readers of this blog may know I lived in Japan for three years. As a video game and anime fan for many years prior to moving there I had a few preconceived notions about the country and its culture and actually living there shattered many of my preconceptions.

The main one being that I though Japan was the weirdest country on the face of the earth where the streets were lined with used panty vending machines, every TV show was a sadistic game show and women dressed as video game characters roamed the streets freely. Sadly the internet lied to me and continues to do so as even now a good 30% of the internet is devoted entirely to websites saying some variation of “Oh Japan, you so crazy.”* Including mummyboon itself at times. (Although my Japanese weirdness is 100% guaranteed eye witness real)

But Japan is depressingly normal for the most part and what incredibly bizarre things do crop up can often be explained and understood with the provision of a little context.

Let’s apply that context to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles anime or Mutant Turtles: Superman Legend. An original straight to video production consisting of two episodes that rejoice in the titles “The Great Crisis of the Super Turtles! The Saint Appears!”  and “The Coming of the Guardian Beasts – The Metal Turtles Appear!”

I’ve actually written about the anime on this site very briefly before where I described them as basically the most stereotypical Japanese thing imaginable cramming every cliche of Japanese pop culture into one incredibly insane package. I imagined that some executive took one look at anthropomorphic ninja turtles and decided, nah, needs more combining to form a giant robot.

But let’s instead examine why that might be the case.

American cartoons are very rarely successful in Japan. There are a variety of reasons for this both cultural and economic. In the main it’s because economic pressures force Japanese television stations to show predominantly Japanese produced content, foreign content is mostly banished to satellite and cable with a few exceptions. However if a foreign show has the financial backing of a Japanese company (in the case of the 1987 TMNT cartoon this was Takara who helped produce the toys) it can be allowed on a Japanese network.

However, even if it gets shown humour and storytelling conventions don’t always translate and regardless of the quality of the original show if the dub is done poorly then it will be regarded as a poor show.

So the 1987 TMNT show faced a lot of barriers to becoming a hit in Japan. Despite these issues it was a monster hit. Although not as popular as it was in Europe or America TMNT was a big deal in Japan in the 90’s.

There are a lot of reasons why this shouldn’t be. There were three competing dubs on the market for starters which confused casual fans. Also all three of the dubs chopped and changed episodes and showed them out of order ruining any continuity or any story arcs, again a barrier to enjoyment for a casual fan. Also the central conceit was two American guys doing a parody of Japanese culture and not a particularly well informed parody at that. For example Oroku Saki and Hamato Yoshi sound Japanese to a western ear but to a Japanese person they sound as authentic as two characters called Smith Jonny Johnson and Butch Rockhammer would to an American audience.

But what does work for Japanese people is the tone. The mix of slapstick, parody, light hearted humour and serious dramatic action storytelling is something Japan has always been fond of and has excelled in for years. Seriously look at any anime that is popular in Japan (Atom Boy, Naruto, One Piece and not exactly anime but any super-sentai show) and you’ll see many similarities with the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

Obviously, when working with dubbing you aren’t going to change too much of the story or the characterisation. You need to keep the plot roughly similar in order to use the existing animation that you’ve bought. So there were no changes to the origin, characters, motivations, etc from the 1987 cartoon when adapting it to Japanese tastes.  But there were some changes. In the most popular of the three dubs (which shares its voice talent with the OVA we’re discussing) the comedy was played up even further with a lot of ad-libbing to the extent that characters would be talking even when the animation clearly showed their mouths were shut. Some names were changed too. Shredder goes from Oroku Saki (which, um, is a girl’s name) to Oroku Sawaki and Splinter goes from Hamato Yoshi to Yoshihama Takeshi. The voice acting also changed some personalities a little so Donatello becomes quite manly whereas Raphael is weirdly effeminate. Shredder becomes a lot more put upon and complaining and Krang, ye gods Krang. The original Krang had a bizarre voice with weird grunts and burps and was very high pitched. The Japanese Krang however sounds like an angle grinder. It’s pitched so high that many of his lines can only be heard by dogs. Yet it’s weirdly endearing after a while.

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I also like the logo they gave the show in Japan. It’s similar to the western effort but I like the ninja mask over the first kana, it just looks cool.

So the show ran for 102 episodes and then got cancelled. But 102 episodes of an American cartoon was basically unheard of at the time and Takara was still cranking out toys even after the cancellation so they thought, let’s just make some more ourselves.  We’ll do some straight to video episodes to promote these new toys we’re making.**

And so was born the TMNT original video anime (or OVA).

So here is a brief summary of what happens in the two episodes of this show.

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The first episode starts with a flashback to an episode that does not exist so right from the beginning we’re getting into some strange stuff but I’ll explain it all later. Krang discovers a dark muta-stone, a counterpart to the turtles own muta-stones (just stay with it I’ll explain later). Inside the stone is a fairy called Dark-Mu with the power to destroy the universe. He hopes to awaken her and use her power to destroy the Earth. Meanwhile on Earth the turtles fairy friend Crys-Mu (nope, it is never explained where the fairy friend comes from) alerts the turtles that Dark-Mu is being awakened and this is causing problems for the Earth such as hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes. The turtles set out to stop Krang but he sends Shredder, Be-Bop and Rocksteady to stop them. They arrive and use the powers of the muta-stone to turn into respectively some kind of robot dragon, a New Wave Rock Star and a cross between a rhino and a lizard.

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The Turtles respond by using their own muta-stones (which they got in the episode that never happened) to turn into incredibly buff and disturbingly handsome green skinned humans wearing shells and carrying ridiculous weaponry (Raphael has the spinning top of super violent wind and Michaelangelo appears to have some kind of robot fish). The two groups fight and Dark-Mu awakens sending a tidal wave that submerges Tokyo. She reveals her powers by causing Shredder to grow into an enormous robot dragon and sending another giant ball of black energy to destroy the Earth which splinter just deflects with his bare hands because in this continuity Splinter is basically Chuck Norris. The turtles defeat Shredder by tricking him into dropping a building on his own head but Dark-Mu flies into space where she can destroy the world.

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So the turtles form the turtle saint, a giant robot turtle complete with wings (yes, you did read that correctly) to fly after her. They attempt to stop her but cannot because, well, I’ll let this quote from Donatello sum it up.

“how troubling, if we don’t sync with each other we can’t defeat her”

So Crys-Mu flies up and fights Dark-Mu. She thinks she can seal both herself and Dark-Mu back in the Muta-stones but she needs the turtles help, so they use their “mega final saint break” attack and turn both Crys-Mu and Dark-Mu back into stones.

I’ll, I’ll let that sink in for a moment guys.

Have you digested that? Good, prepare for more insanity.

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So in episode 2 the world is fine (…okay, sure) and the turtles travel to Japan at the behest of some “real” ninja. Shredder also has gone to Japan and this leads to a brief scene on the Shinkansen (bullet train) where Shredder loses to some “real” ninja which I think might be symbolic of something, hmmm. Anyway the turtles arrive in the ninja village where they have a magic mirror with some stones on the back and someone is trying to steal it. That someone is, unsurprisingly, Shredder who has been sent there by Krang to get the stones which turn out to be Muta-stones from the back of the mirror. When he realises this the head ninja pulls a chain WHICH EXPLODES THE HOUSE THEY WERE ALL IN AND CAUSES A GIGANTIC CASTLE, WHICH IS APPARENTLY THEIR HIDDEN FORTRESS, TO RISE FROM THE GROUND!!!

It was at exactly that point that I decided that this is actually my all-time favourite version of TMNT.

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Oh and at some point before that the Turtle got ninja armour, because ninja armour is totally a thing despite the fact that this show has approximately eleventy trillion ninjas in it and none of them have worn armour before.

So now they all race to the top of the castle and Shredder gets there first and gets his muta-stones. This causes robot animals to fly from OUT OF MT FUJI! Then they meet up with Shredder, Bebop and Rocksteady and form robotic samurai armour for them. Shredder gets white tiger armour, Bebop gets a fish and Rocksteady gets some kind of Hydra. So we have the spectacle of a warthog mutant wearing armour that makes him look like a fish.

Ow, sorry guys I may have to pause for a moment, I think that might have been an aneurysm. Or can the rest of you smell purple now too?

So they fight the turtles for a bit and then the turtles get the mirror which causes them to get robot animal samurai armour too because just being turtles with ninja armour, that’s lame, kid’s won’t like that. Raphael gets a phoenix, Leonardo gets a dragon, Donatello gets a lion with wings and a dragon’s tail (???) and Michaelangelo gets some kind of cross between a lion, a spider, a crab and a turtle. And his attack is called the “beef bee tonic” so that’s also cows and bees and….I have honestly no idea what animal he’s supposed to be. I don’t think the creators did either, or cared.

So they fight for a bit, the turtles win and Shredder and his gang run away. The Ninjas are happy, the end.

…..

Now based upon that you’d be inclined to think, this is insane. There is no rhyme nor reason to what is happening here, the creators are completely round the bend loco. They are one crayon short of a box. They are not in their right minds. They are cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

And I had the same thought when I saw the trailer for it on youtube lo those many years ago.

But if you watch the entire show you realise pretty much in the first three minutes that THEY KNOW. The creators are fully cognizant that the story they’re telling is completely and utterly certified bat shit and they’re doing it on purpose. Rather than this being an example of Japan naively adapting a western property to Japanese tastes by adding giant robots and transformations it is a parody of all those conventions of anime and super-sentai. And they’ve crammed literally every cliché they can think of in here; giant robots, people combining and having to sync up their hearts, transforming heroes and villains, robot animals and animal themed armour and powers, mystical forces, ancient ninja magic, villains making their minions grow. If you can think of a shonen anime or super-sentai cliché it’s probably in here. And that extends to the visual style as well which incorporates every clichéd image and money saving trick ever used in an anime.

And that’s entirely appropriate.  TMNT the comic was kind of a parody but mostly played straight, TMNT the animated show had its tongue firmly in cheek but TMNT the anime pushes the jokes into pythonesque surrealism. I mean just look at some of the visual gags like this foot soldier in a Hawaiian shirt.

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Or indeed the…everything, about this.

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There’s also some brilliant visual gags I can’t show you here because they’re animated. My favourite being a series of images of the world being destroyed; Tokyo Tower crumbles, the Eiffel Tower crumbles, and then it cuts to China where….a picture falls off a wall.

The dialogue as well is so tongue in cheek it’s gone right through the other side. That’s why we have gems like, “I don’t object to destroying the earth but where will we live afterwards?”

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If you want further proof the very first scene is a flashback to an episode THAT NEVER HAPPENED! So all this stuff with fairies and muta-stones is just there and is never explained. Because it doesn’t have to because you know what the muta-stones are, they’re a macguffin like whatever the sentai-rangers need to power up this series.

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Other than all the parody stuff the characters are actually remarkably similar to the originals in appearance and personality. The 4 turtles are basically unchanged (until they mutate into incredible hunks or metal samurai). April O’Neil is basically the same except for, ironically, having a smaller chest (you’ve disappointed me Japan, where is your incredible perversion when I need it? Although Dark Mu does kind of make up for it). Splinter is the same in appearance and personality but has been elevated to monumental badass. Not only can he deflect huge energy blasts but he can project an illusionary image of himself that is LARGER THAN THE MOON!***

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Shredder is the only character to get a re-design and weirdly he gets two. In the second episode he has a look that’s quite similar to his movie appearance but without his trademark blades that make him, y’know the shredder. In the first episode though he has a very different helmet with a sort of red crest on it. He also doesn’t  have his shredding blades but instead has absolutely enormous shoulder pads. Oh and his eyes have become anime eyes and decidedly more expressive.

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He’s barely in this shape before he turns into a satanic robot dragon though so, whatever.

As far as alternative versions of the turtles go it’s beyond stupid and far from definitive but incredibly enjoyable. The creators looked at the original slightly weird and fun concept, looked at the utterly bizarre toys they were being paid to advertise and just said, “let’s make the weirdest, silliest, stupidest version of this show we can.” And they succeeded, and the result is wonderful.

You can check out the insanity for yourself on youtube, the starting link is embedded below.

I also want to direct you to who has a fascinating article on the complicated history of the turtles in Japan which was very helpful in writing and researching this post.

*For the curious it’s 30% ridiculous stuff from Japan 30% cats, 35% porn 4% memes and 1% misc.

** This is something I used to think was particularly Japanese, that if something is popular once they will never let it die. Gundam and Sentai Ranger for example have been going pretty much continuously since the 70’s but every series has a new setting and characters just shared themes, ideas and elements like the costumes for sentai ranger or the robots for Gundam. See also Final Fantasy, Mario, Gatchman, Transformers, etc, etc. And this was something that never happened in the west so when something like TMNT got cancelled, that was it, it was cancelled, over and done and with very few exceptions not coming back. Of course now Hollywood and western television is obsessed with remaking stuff that works before. And I also realised that all those properties that get constantly re-made in Japan, they’re not mainstream properties but nerdy ones. This is because Japan realised two things long before Hollywood did. 1. Nerds spend a ton of money. 2. If you give nerds something they already like but just change it slightly, they will buy it all over again and hence why we went 7 years for a TMNT remake the first time but less than 2 this time.

*** As everyone knows, old people in Japan don’t get older they just get smaller and more powerful as their power becomes more concentrated. If you ever find yourself in a group of heavily armed thugs, say there’s about 50 of you, armed with machine guns, and you come across a single old Japanese man with a cane, run! Run away immediately because he is going to destroy you utterly.

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There is a tension inherent in adaptation.

When you adapt something from one medium to another you have to change things, that is simply unavoidable. Mostly this is due to the strengths and limitations of the medium you’re adapting the story into.  To give a comics example; you can’t do the Dark Phoenix saga in a film the same way yit was done in the comic because a film lasts 2 – 3 hours and tells a single story. A comic runs for years and tells a new story every month so you can have a slow burn sub-plot like the corruption of Jean Grey into the Dark Phoenix happen in the background every issue until you suddenly make it the main story. You could also do that on television, or possibly in a novel if it was lengthy enough but not in a film.

That’s just one example and there are many more. In adapting something to a new medium some changes are necessary.

However, if you’re bothering to adapt a story then there must have been something in the original worth adapting. It must have been popular enough that someone thought it was worth spending the money to make it into a film or TV show. The tension comes from making the necessary changes to adapt it into the new medium whilst preserving what made the original work in the first place.

So a certain amount of change is necessary.

But then you get the changes that have nothing to do with conventions of the medium but happen in adaptations anyway.

For example, Gimli the dwarf is presented an entirely serious character in the original Lord of the Rings novels. However in the films he increasingly becomes a comic relief character, prat falling and spouting one liners. There is nothing inherent in film as a medium that demands a comic relief character, this was a change the creators decided to make because they thought it would improve the film that was not entirely necessary.

These changes are unnecessary. But they’re not necessarily bad. There are plenty of examples of a creator adapting something and improving upon a flaw in the original text.  Batman the Animated Series was so good at this that many of their changes, like Clayface’s origin or Two Face’s personality, were absorbed back into the original comics.

More often than not though they are bad, or at least neutral, and they infuriate fans of the original work.

I’m a die hard comics fan, I have been so since I was 9 years old and I have heard more than a few people whine; “why did they have to change it? It was great before and now it sucks!” whenever anything from a comic gets adapted.

Indeed I’ve said it myself on occasion.

I say all this as a preamble to my next statement. The adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from gritty black and white comic book to Saturday morning cartoon may be one of the most successful adaptations of a property from one medium to another of all time.

I say this not because I think the 1987 TMNT cartoon is better than the comics (I don’t) nor do I consider it to be an amazing cartoon (it really isn’t. the animation and storytelling do not hold up well at all) but because I think the cartoon is a better and more successful at being a cartoon than the comic is at being a comic.

As evidence just look at the history of the two properties. The comic was cancelled one year before the cartoon was and whilst it has been brought back and cancelled a few times since and was a big hit for an indie property it was never a number one, nor even a top ten, selling title.

In contrast the cartoon was at one point the longest running American animated TV show (until The Simpsons overtook it). It spawned countless imitators and a huge host of licensed products and spin-offs.

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For most of the world, the 1987 cartoon is the definitive version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it in every way supplanted the original comics. Indeed it introduced some changes and improvements that would be carried forward into pretty much all other adaptations.

So, what did it change?

The biggest change is an overall change in tone. TMNT the comic is played straight. Ridiculous stuff happens but the threats are real threats, the dangers are really dangerous. Characters die and suffer. It is a dramatic adventure story.

TMNT the animated series is a comedy. Dramatic stuff happens, the turtles use their weapons and fight bad guys but there is never really any sense of threat or danger. At all times the tone is light and comedic. We have bumbling incompetent villains, fourth wall gags, nod and wink references, parody characters and puns, a constant non-stop torrent of puns.

Now if you were a fan of TMNT the comic in 1987 I imagine you’d be furious at this. It seems for all the world like the cartoon is making fun of this comic you love. It really isn’t though; it’s making fun of anything and everything it can get its hands on and just embracing the fact that, well, the basic concept of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is kind of ridiculous.

And I think this was the smartest decision the producers could have made.

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Most narratives, especially in genre, are all about hitting the audience’s expectations and giving them moments they specifically come to see. In porn it’s sex, in comedy it’s a joke, in horror it’s a scare. For a dramatic action story it’s an action sequence. And your audience will forgive anything in the story itself if you hit these pay off moments well. A film with a very basic plot but excellent action sequences will go down well with fans of action films.

But action sequences that are exciting to watch are hard to do in animation. It can be done but it requires a lot of time and money to animate well and TMNT just doesn’t have that budget. Comedy though is kind of easy to animate. That’s why most animated television shows historically have been comedies and only recently have we had serious attempts to do dramatic story telling in western animation on television.

And let me just pause at this moment to critique the cartoon as a whole. In preparation for this review I watched the first 5 episodes of TMNT 1987 again and hoo boy are they rough. The animation is largely appalling* with tons of mistakes (my favourite is when the wrong voice comes out of a turtle’s mouth) and just the worst editing in a cartoon I’ve seen in outside of Hanna-Barbera. The plots are perfunctory and riddled with plots holes (how does the turtle van drive to a vast subterranean cavern?), the action is unimpressive and tedious (mostly it’s turtles dodging lasers) and there is never any dramatic tension even for a second.

But, as a comedy, it still works. Even though it’s aimed at kids and plenty of jokes don’t work there were more than a few lines in these episodes that had me smiling.

“We’re the news media. Who’d want to hurt us?”

“This is great! I must really be onto something hot if they’re trying to kill me.”

“No April, you wouldn’t last five minutes in a ninja pizza parlour (turns to camera) I love saying lines like that.”

There’s also just plenty of sight gags and situations that had me giggling too, such as an old lady pulling a giant machine gun out of her shopping cart when she sees the turtles.

Trying to do the TMNT cartoon as a drmatic action piece in the manner of the comics would not have worked with the restraints the producers had. Playing it as a comedy could have though, and it did.

So they changed the tone, what else did they change?

Most significantly and most successfully, it changed the appearance of the Turtles. The actual characters are slightly taller and slightly more humanly proportioned than they’re drawn in the comics. They also look friendlier and have pupils in their masks that make them more open and human looking which helps with the comedy.

But best of all they have colour coded bandannas.

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Now I know colour coding wouldn’t help much in a black and white comic but even in later volumes of the comic that are in colour the turtles all have red bandannas. Considering the turtles are drawn to look identical to each other this makes it incredibly annoying to figure out which character is talking. Literally the only way to tell is to see what weapon they’re holding. Yes, it doesn’t make sense for a ninja to jump around in bright primary coloured cloth but these ninja are all green to begin with so shut up logic. The colour coding is such a massive help in telling the turtles apart that it was naturally carried forward into every other version.

The initials on the belts though…not entirely necessary guys.

The turtle’s origin is tweaked a bit as well. The turtles falling into the sewer and the mutagen falling into the sewer happen on different occasions. This is neither an improvement nor a loss really but does remove the Daredevil parody.

The mutagen doesn’t come from aliens this time either but from Shredder in an attempt to kill Hamato Yoshi.

This brings me to Shredder, Splinter and Hamato Yoshi.

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In this version Hamato Yoshi and Shredder (Oroku Saki still) are both ninjas in the foot clan. Yoshi is the leader and trainer of the branch of the clan they both belong to.  Shredder wishes to be the leader and so when a revered sensei of the foot comes to visit he literally stabs Yoshi in the back. Well, nearly. He stabs his robe to the wall meaning Yoshi can’t bow, and then when Yoshi removes the dagger he appears to have pulled a dagger on the sensei. Yoshi has been framed by Shredder and is apparently disgraced so he flees to New York.

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For some, inadequately explained reason he ends up destitute and living in the sewer. Kay. There he makes friends with some rats, and then the turtles. One day he and the turtles get exposed to the mutagen turning them into turtle-men and he into a rat-man, Splinter.

This is so much better than the comic.

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For starters it means we don’t have to buy kung fu rats in tiny cages. Yoshi becoming Splinter means he would of course know martial arts from his time in the foot. Indeed he’s already shown to be a teacher of ninjas.

It also provides a much more interesting dynamic between Splinter and Shredder. Rather than being a clichéd “you killed my master” kung fu set up Splinter has multiple reasons to hate Shredder. He disgraced him, forced him out of the clan and turned him into a rat man. Shredder also has better reasons to hate Splinter than revenge, he’s jealous of his superior martial arts skills and fears that he might take back the foot clan. It also gives the turtles a better reason for going after Shredder than revenge; they want to turn Splinter back into a human. That’s a much more noble motivation than they had in issue one of the comics. And it adds a tragic element to Splinter as a noble man betrayed and forced down to the level of a rat but who still has dignity and appreciation for art.

Considering this series isn’t aiming for high drama it does a better job of setting up dramatic conflicts between the main characters than the comic does.

Of course they had to change the origin. The original version had too many murderings and love affairs for a kids cartoon. But even if it’s an accident it’s a happy one.

There are some problems with the new origin though. It makes Shredder out to be the unequivocal bad guy, he’s the betrayer and the attempted murderer when in the original comic he has been wronged by Yoshi and so is a bit more nuanced. It also doesn’t explain why Yoshi goes to New York and then sets out living in the sewers. There are homeless shelters in New York dude, sewer should not be your first option.

Other than the origin changes the Turtles and Splinter are much the same as they are in the comics with clearly defined personalities. Leonardo leads, Donatello does machines, Raphael is cool but rude and Michaelangelo is a party dude. Why it’s all there in the (still fantastic) theme song. The only real change is Raphael who is usually portrayed as the angrier more violent turtle but you can’t really do that in a Saturday morning cartoon so Raph here is more of a sarcastic quipster.

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The series also introduced a lot of stuff we associate with TMNT. The surfer talk catchphrases (Cowabunga, Radical) were created for the series. Incidentally it’s fun to see in the first five episodes things that were obviously meant to be catchphrase that never caught on (“Turtles fight with honour” and “let’s boogaloo”). It also introduced the idea that the turtles order really weird pizza like whipped cream flavour, or adding breakfast cereal as a topping. In fact it’s the first version to suggest that the Turtles are obsessed with pizza at all. While the weird toppings idea didn’t stick around the concept the the Turtles love pizza has certainly become ingrained in their make-up. This series also introduced the Turtle Van and Turtle Blimp. This is typical Saturday morning stuff  (put some vehicles in for kids to buy toys of) but the Turtle Van is so well designed and so iconic (I love the frowny face with the spare tire as a nose) it’s been brought back a few times too.

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April O’Neil is much changed from the comics. For starters she isn’t a scientist’s assistant but a news reporter. This is another great change from the source material. There’s a reason Superman and Spider-Man work for newspapers, it’s just a great story telling engine to insert into your narrative. Rather than being reactionary and limited to New York April O’Neil is out there chasing stories and that provides an excuse to send her around the country and get the turtles involved when threats become too big for her.

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Her appearance is much changed too but this is the iconic April O’Neil most people think of. Red head, yellow jumpsuit and, two features in particular that everybody remembers.

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Yeah, April O’Neil is pretty much the first woman I ever had a crush on. And I think she cemented my fondness for red heads forever.

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April brings with her a lot of new characters from her news channel. Her boss, Burne Thompson, her rival reporter and cameraman Vernon Fenwick and her friend and secretary Irma Langinstein. These characters provide broad comedy in most episodes with varying degrees of success but they’re pretty one note stereotypes.

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Casey Jones shows up but he’s a much reduced character than in other adaptations. He’s presented in a manner that very closely matches his earliest appearance parodying vigilantes and cop shows like Dirty Harry with his extreme violence (well, as extreme as a Saturday morning kid’s cartoon can get). The thing is in other versions of TMNT Casey is allowed to grow beyond that role and become an ally to the turtles and a well-rounded character. Here he never does.

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By far the biggest sets of changes apply to the villains. We’ve already discussed some of the changes to Shredder’s origin but there also changes to his appearance and personality here. The original comics Shredder was just a ninja, a particularly dangerous ninja with a Darth Vader helmet but still just a ninja. In this he gets elevated to full on super-villain. He has plots to take over the world (well eventually, most of the time he has a more short term goal that he needs to achieve before the world conquering stuff can start) and although he does have a ninja clan he also has a vast array of high tech weaponry, vehicles and resources, access to an extra-dimensional army and a crew of mutated street punks. His appearance makes him seem less like a stealthy fighter and more like a flamboyant Doctor Doom style villain complete with purple cape.

Now all of these changes are to make him more like a standard cartoon villain of course. The set-up with him having vast technological resources means you can tell a lot more stories with the same starting point. Shredder needs thing n so he uses x special weapon which causes y problem for the Turtles. Rinse and repeat. At least in his first few appearances he is still treated with dignity and comes off as a viable threat. However, by the time a few seasons have rolled around he’s been reduced to a comically inept villain.

This is also the series that cemented Shredder as the Turtle’s big bad. In the comics he dies in his first appearance, and although he does return the Turtles deal with a variety of threats in that book. In the cartoon he appears in nearly every episode. Again standard Saturday morning stuff but it helped define Shredder as the Turtles bad guy.

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Krang also appears in nearly every episode and he is by far the best thing about the 1987 TMNT series. Instead of being a race of brain aliens Krang is unique in this setting. He’s actually the conqueror of an alien dimension (Dimension X) and he used to have a body before losing it in an unseen accident that also blasted him to our dimension. Krang, more than Shredder , really drives the plot. He either wants to get a new body, or bring his army over from Dimension X or empower his vast tank the Technodrome** but being a brain without a body he can’t enact any of these schemes himself hence his allying with Shredder. Krang is written and acted as amazingly sarcastic. He just owns Shredder repeatedly with cutting put down after cutting put down. Their relationship is akin to something like Ren and Stimpy or Brian and Peter in Family Guy. One intelligent guy constantly sniping at his stupider friend at a level that often goes over Shredder’s head. It’s such fun to watch.

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Bebop and Rocksteady were original creations for the 1987 series that were fondly regarded but don’t seem to have shown up in any other versions. In one sense I don’t know why. They have really great designs and provide a striking visual. They’re also a nice concept. In this continuity Shredder has the mutagen himself and he uses it to turn his street gang allies into powerful animal men. Great idea, it means Shredder can routinely produce new monstrous foes for the Turtle’s to battle and it provides an endless source of new animal men designs for Playmates to make toys out of. However the main reason they’re usually not used elsewhere is that they’re a bit redundant. They’re henchmen for Shredder who already has an entire ninja clan at his disposal and they’re bumbling comedy henchmen at that. Bumbling henchmen is a venerable old trope but the problem with including it in TMNT 1987 is that the relationship between Shredder and these two is basically the same as that between Shredder and Kang so they’re a touch redundant.

Incidentally the foot clan in this version are all robots. This is incredibly stupid and makes no sense but was necessary because FCC restrictions at the time would have precluded the turtles using their weapons on real people. So it’s either robot ninjas and Raphael gets to stab things or human ninjas and he doesn’t. I feel the show made the right choice there.

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Baxter Stockman was the second villain the turtles encountered in the comics and so he is in the TV show too in a fairly faithful adaptation of his initial scheme involving small dangerous robots called mousers. Whilst Stockman is a recurring character in the comics he is mostly a technological foe attacking the turtles in a cyborg body for example. The TV show already has a technological foe in Shredder and Krang though so Stockman is another redundant character.

Until they turn him into a fly in a parody of, what else, The Fly.

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Yeah, that happened.

Oh and he was black in the comics and isn’t in the cartoon. I don’t know why.

The show also created a few new villains or elevated some existing villains into a much bigger deal. Of these Leatherhead and The Rat King are probably the most prominent and well remembered.

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Leatherhead is a Cajun Alligator-man. Unless you really like Cajun jokes there isn’t a lot to him.

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The Rat King is a bit more interesting. He’s a homeless guy with the power to control rats, initially with a flute and then later with just his mind. Since Splinter is a rat this understandably causes a few problems for the turtles. Rat King is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly he’s really more of Splinter’s enemy than the turtles which allows for some rare Splinter focused episodes. Secondly he isn’t a bad guy so much as he is chaotic neutral. He believes rats are superior to humans but mostly is content to just hang around in the sewers with his rat buddies and whilst he often is in conflict with the turtles he will sometimes aid them if something threatens the sewers. For an 80’s kid’s show that’s surprisingly nuanced characterisation.

Also props for taking a design like this

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And rendering it in a way that it can be animated; that took some skill guys.

So ultimately what do I feel about the 1987 turtles cartoon?

This is my childhood in TV show form. This thing is pure raw unfiltered nostalgia. And unfortunately it pretty much sucks. It’s got bad stories that are badly animated. I have very fond memories of this show but it does not hold up well at all. The only thing that hasn’t aged is the comedy and I was pleasantly surprised with how funny I found it as an adult when I had a sneaking suspicion going in that it was going to be a Scooby Doo level of bad, bad puns.

But I think the ideas and concepts in here are better than the comic. They’ve taken what was a promising idea and refined and improved on it. The characters motivations and personalities in here are just superior to the comic and it adds some concepts (colour coded bandanas, eating pizza) that just work and will show up in later adaptations.

Basically if you could take this show complete with light tone but combine it with more logical stories and better animation you’d have the platonic ideal of TMNT.

But what if you didn’t animate it at all? What if you did it as a live action movie? Join us next week when we look at the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie.

*Although by the standards of the time it wasn’t that bad actually. Of all the American cartoons produced between 1980 and 1990 really only stuff done by Disney and some of the Sunbow stuff (i.e. Transformers) was better animated. But it has not aged well at all.

** More kids cartoon stuff. TMNT like any 80’s cartoon existed to shift toys so Shredder and Krang often employed tanks and vehicles that screamed “buy me!” to their audience. The biggest and best was an enormous vehicle called the Technodrome which was basically a Death Star on tank treads with a giant eye on the top. Gaze upon it! I love the designs in this series, they’re so creative and so bizarre.

Technodrome

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Hello Kit-Kat fans. Hmmm, we really need a name for Kit-Kat fans don’t we, like Trekker. Kit-Katatonics? Kit-Kategorically insane? Kit-Katastrophically poor social skills? I’ll work on it.

Anyway Kat lovers (Katchers? Oooh  like that one, Kit-Katchers.) today marks what is probably going to be my last Kit-Kat review for some time. My supply of Japanese stock has drastically declined and I’m too poor to import more at the moment. Yes, I know, you’re shocked. You figured I’d be rolling in kickbacks from big chocolate by now, but alas no. Shockingly Nestle have not seen fit to pay me for my efforts. Probably has something to do with how I compared one of their products to shit the other week. So unless Nestle U.K. starts cranking out new flavours or somebody donates me some this is my stash entirely depleted.

Also today is a weird one. Having just done so many weeks of new flavours this week is more about shape and format changes than anything else. So without further ado let’s dig into.

Caramel Pudding Flavour Kit-Kat Bites

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Kit-Kat Bites are a variant of Kit-Kat I have not discussed before on this blog but I have come across them ‘in the wild’ as it were. They consist of a series of wafers and chocolate crème, just like a Kit-Kat, but wrapped up in a chocolate ball rather than as a bar. I haven’t reviewed them before because, well, to me they aren’t Kit-Kats. My love of Kit-Kats lies in how the Japanese have taken something so British and radically changed it for their own palate and their own culture. But it still has to fundamentally be a Kit-Kat. Wafer, crème, chocolate, two bars and you can break the bars in two. To me these aren’t Kit-Kats but another creation entirely. But, a friend got me them and it would be very rude not to review them.

So this review is going to be discussing the concept of a Kit-Kat bite itself and also this particular flavour, caramel pudding. Hopefully this doesn’t taste too much like pudding because I’m really not a fan. Custard, quiche, flan, all those various egg based treats I find have a horrible texture to them. I have no issue with scrambled eggs weirdly but custard just puts me right off. Caramel, on the other hand, is one of my favourite flavours so I’m hoping this is a lot more caramel than pudding.

The packet is baffling. Most of it seems to make some kind of sense. We have the logo, fine, it’s still too big and it still doesn’t need the red border but okay you have to have the logo, I get it. We have a picture of some caramel pudding, again, fine. We have multiple pictures of the bites themselves, again, this is fine and I appreciate that we get multiple images since it sells the idea you’re getting a bag full of bites. The only kind of nod towards cleverness is the web of caramel, which is okay but spoiled a little by the solid white background. Not exactly the most interesting colour.

Those are all expected Kit-Kat elements. What I cannot comprehend is the massive logo in the bottom which says “Big” in English and “ritoru” (little) in Japanese. Well not really Japanese, katakana symbols but for an English word. The Japanese use katakana to represent words borrowed from other languages. For example caramel pudding has no translation into Japanese so they say “kyarameru purin” and spell it using katakana letters. That’s all fine and dandy, but big (okii) and little (chisai) have words in Japanese, why say big little? And why is half in roman letters and the other half in katakana? And why say big little at all? What does it mean? I mean it’s the second largest design element after the logo. Hell, they even have it written around the edge of the wrapper. I have frankly no idea what it could mean at all. Does it mean the bites are a mix of big and little? No, because I opened it and they all seem to be of uniform size. Maybe this is a big packet of little bites? Well, maybe but it’s the same size as all the other Kit-Kat bite packets. My best guess is that they’ve renamed the entire brand from Kit-Kat bites to Kit-Kat Big Little but I’d have to see other packets to confirm this. If you know the answer to this mystery please tell me because I am frankly baffled.

So that’s enough confusion, how do they taste?

Firstly I have to tell you about the smell, opening this packet unleashed one of the nicest smells in the world. It smells like cinema popcorn freshly popped with toffee applied. Or a fudge shop. Basically it smells of hot caramel and that earthy, nutty yet sweet aroma happens to be one of my favourites. It’s also not something even caramel sweets usually smell of, let alone caramel flavoured chocolate. It also doesn’t smell of egg which is a good sign.

The Bites themselves aren’t really balls but more like misshapen cubes with the corners filed down. The balance of chocolate to wafer is waaaaay off for a Kit-Kat. Or anything really. Wafer is flavourless crunch, you need it for texture, nothing more. With a regular Kit-Kat you get a nice big slab of chocolate on top but with these the chocolate evenly coats the wafer thus you get much less chocolate to wafer in each bite. As such the first thing you taste is likely to be bland, inoffensive wafer. The chocolate only comes through as you chew it.

I will say this, the chocolate does seem to be slightly better than regular nestle chocolate. It may still have the gritty problem most nestle chocolate does but it’s hard to say since the wafer gets everywhere. It’s actually a bit like the chocolate on a milk dud.

The caramel pudding flavour is quite hard to pick up on really. It’s definitely in there, particularly in the aftertaste but the quantity of wafer deadens it. I wouldn’t call this pudding. You get caramel, yes, but nothing pudding like at all. Mostly what you taste is wafer, then regular chocolate, then caramel and then an after taste which is bitter and frankly a bit sickly at the same time. There are so many Kit-Kat flavours that taste of caramel, like the sweet potato flavours for example, but the flavours called caramel mostly taste of sickly sweet nothing. These are pretty horrible actually and as I continue to eat them they’re making me feel a bit ill. A shame because they smell so promising but mostly they’re just gross.

70% Cocoa Solids

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A British flavour and one with a few stories behind it.

Britain as a country is increasingly becoming more and more obsessed with food, where it comes from, how it’s made and that it’s delicious. Despite the jokes about British cooking being terrible we’re 8th in the world for Michelin stars as a nation with London being 6th in the world as the city with the most (surprising nobody Japan and Tokyo are number one in each category, they really love their food over there). Most of those jokes really come from American G.I.s in World War Two stationed in the U.K. and eating our food, neglecting to realise that whilst America’s food supply was largely unaffected by the war Britons were rationed and had to make do with things like powdered egg. Have you ever eaten powdered egg? It’s shit. There’s no getting around it, it’s fucking disgusting. But they knew it was disgusting back then too. We didn’t eat it because we liked it or because we didn’t know better. We ate it because there was no alternative.

But a generation of kids grew up learning to cook in the war and their legacy ruined British cuisine for a good 20 – 30 years; really only starting to recover in the late 70’s. Flash forward to now and cookery programmes are almost as ubiquitous on British T.V. as they are in Japan.*

Consequently we’ve all learned that we’re supposed to find out the percentage of cocoa solids in our chocolates and that some chocolate bars can have as little as 15%. I’m not sure what the ideal is but I’ve had a 92% cocoa chocolate bar once and that was fowl. I think you’re supposed to aim for 70 to 80 percent. And so preying on vague understandings gleaned from the television we have 70% cocoa solids Kit-Kat.

This is also a bar where a higher proportion of the proceeds goes to the cocoa plan. You can find out more about the cocoa plan here.

Basically it’s a project run by Nestle, in conjunction with Fair Trade, to invest in cocoa growing nations such as The Ivory Coast by buildings schools, investing in new agricultural equipment and supporting farmers with new disease resistant cocoa crops. I haven’t been able to find out much about it but I’m slightly dubious. Nestle does not have a good reputation for ethical treatment of Africans, particularly in the realm of freebies. For those who don’t know the most egregious scandal Nestle was involved in was giving free samples of formula milk to mothers in Africa and promoting it heavily as a better alternative to breast milk. Said free samples were worked out to last just long enough for the mother’s own milk to dry up. At which point the freebies were cut off forcing poor African mother’s to buy milk they struggled to afford. It’s a similar tactic to drug dealers and just a monstrous strategy all round exploiting some of the world’s poorest and neediest people. If you want to know more there is a wealth of information out there and I’m not the man to get it from. My understanding though is that this practise has ceased now. I’m slightly dubious about giving farmer’s disease resistant crops since it sounds like a similar scam to what Monsanto has done with disease resistant corn but I have no evidence to back up that feeling at all and what information I could find out about the cocoa plan has seemed broadly positive.

It’s also part of Fair Trade now, as are all standard Kit-Kats. Fair Trade isn’t quite the angel it makes itself out to be either but it’s still better to buy Fair than to not.

So, possibly dubious but well meaning politics aside how is it?

The wrapper is a standard Kit-Kat wrapper but shinier (oooh, shiny) with a swirl of dark brown and highlights in gold. The colour choice and simplicity really sell that this is a sophisticated, adult product. I love the simplicity of British Kit-Kats. When you compare it to the utter mess of Japanese designs it’s striking how much better the use of a few elements is. It really makes it stand out on a shelf and makes it much more aesthetically appealing and cohesive.

The chocolate is surprisingly dark, almost black. This is darker than most dark chocolate I’ve eaten and has that distinctive cocoa smell to boot.

I like dark chocolate, I like the richness, I like the complexity of the taste mixing bitter notes with sweet ones and even tangy ones. This is good dark chocolate. It could stand to be a little sweeter for my palate but you can’t fault this at all. This is definitely an adult Kit-Kat and a Kit-Kat for chocolate purists. It’s tough to eat a four bar serving though. The richness and bitterness is very powerful and makes it hard to eat more than one bar at once.

Sometimes simple changes are the best. Take a Kit-kat but give it better chocolate, and you get a Kit-Kat with better chocolate, and what’s not to like about that.

*This is a huge exaggeration. Nobody will ever come close to matching the proliferation of food on Japanese T.V. Formats and ideas that have nothing to do with food will just stop and eat some food frequently. I’ve seen episodes of anime stop to give me a recipe for making curry. In fact I watched a programme starring SMAP** once. SMAP are a boy band and so most of the programme was them singing, which you’d expect. Then they interviewed Harisson Ford about Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull which is outside the normal boy band purview but is still within the realms of sanity. Then they cooked him dinner?! In fact here is a video.

Harrison Ford and Smap Part 2 by smokyo

Marvel at Ford’s utter confusion as to what is going on. He does like the soup though

. I’d love this! I’d love to watch a show where every week the Spice Girls make a celebrity his tea. You can call it “Cooking with Spice.” It would be a mega hit. I’m right here Channel 4, I’m not doing anything right now, call me. Let’ make it happen.

**On another tangent one of the guys from SMAP once got arrested for being drunk and naked in a public park early in the morning. When arrested he reportedly told the police “what’s wrong with being naked?” This is, and always will be, my favourite thing about SMAP and the most interesting thing I know about any Japanese singer.

5 Finger Kit-Kat

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Five Finger Kit-Kat

FIVE! FINGER! KIT! KAT!

I

I don’t even

FIVE FINGER KIT-KAT!!!!!!!

Japan gets fucking lemon vinegar. That’s based on a drink people outside Japan don’t even know is a drink. Australia gets honeycomb flavours. We get the same original style, but with an extra finger.

This, this is supposed to be innovation right here. This is British ingenuity. This is possibly a symbol of everything wrong with this country.

Five, finger Kit-Kat.

What can I say? What can I possibly say? This has utterly defeated me. My niche on the internet is applying thought and care to something ephemeral, this should be right up my alley. But what can I say? It’s the same but more? That’s all it is, the same but more.

Five, finger, kit, kat.

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The wrapper has a yellow streak on it. That…that’s something.

*sob*

A five finger Kit-Kat.

Why five fingers, why make more? Don’t they know this country is struggling with obesity? Do we need more chocolate? Were people crying out for this? Were people honestly looking at the four finger version and thinking; “I like that, but it just doesn’t fill me up?” No, no, nobody was thinking that.

A five finger Kit-Kat.

I almost admire the chutzpah. I almost admired the testicular fortitude this required. To put this out there takes balls of epic proportions. Balls that are exactly like regular balls, but bigger. Almost like a Kit-Kat that’s, exactly like a regular Kit-Kat….but bigger.

A five finger Kit-Kat.

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To look at the inventiveness from Japan and the interest that sparks on the internet and then to turn around and do this. It’s a failure of imagination of epic proportions.

I imagine men, men in suits, men with cigars. Mad men type men talking like this;

“Right guys, we need to come up with a genius idea, something that will capture imaginations, something that people will love”

“I got it boss!”

“What is it kid?”

“We’ll do a four fingered Kit-Kat….but instead of four fingers.”

“Yeah?”

“Five fingers.”

And then everyone applauds and sends out for more hookers and blow.

A five fingered Kit-Kat.

Wow.

Just, wow.

You know what, this has inspired me. This has inspired me to write a haiku.

Five fingered Kit-Kat,

In your laziness you show,

a strange genius

Well. I guess I’d better eat it.

It tastes like a Kit-Kat. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten a regular Kit-Kat I have actually forgotten what they taste like. They’re nicer than I remember.

Five Fingered Kit-Kat. Like a Kit-Kat, but with one more finger.

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If there is one thing I love in life it’s an epic failure.

That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate good things. I like good films and good comics. But unfortunately I studied English literature, and what that does to you is to implant something in your brain that constantly analyses the media you’re experiencing. I can’t just watch a film anymore. When I watch a film my brain is looking at plot holes, plot structure, themes, cinematography, how this relates to the history of the medium or the genre, what it’s influences are, etc, etc, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t switch that part of my brain off for the world. When something is truly a great piece of media that analysis just improves it. But it also means that a lot of very mediocre stuff goes from; “that’s okay,” to “eurrrgh I hate this,” purely because I can’t shut the Gremlin of analysis in my brain up. My favourite example is probably Prometheus. I saw that film in the cinema and thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the visuals, I loved the sound and I was having a good time. But as I walked home I started thinking through the plot and coming up with plot hole after plot hole. By the time I got home I hated Prometheus and still do.

It’s precisely because of this that I love so bad it’s good media. I love when everything a creator sets out to do fails dismally, because my analysis Gremlin knows these have all failed but it’s like a great film in reverse. Every thing I can pick apart just makes it funnier and funnier. I cna not only make fun of the plot but the production design, the sound design, the use of stock effects, it’s a fractal of crap.

There’s an element of irony to it, sure, but I am not sarcastic in my love for something like Birdemic or Troll 2 or The Room. I love these things in ways the creators didn’t intend but I love them far more than I love Memento or Star Wars or Citizen Kane.

All of which is a long build up to say I absolutely adore the Eurovision Song Contest which is usually a parade of bat shit insanity and creative failure with so much money, effort and promotion into it that guys like Tommy Wiseau would dream of. I wish Tommy Wiseau was given the option to fail as hard as your average Eurovision contestant.

Sadly this year the acts were disappointingly competent but that doesn’t mean it was entirely without Eurovision’s trademark car crash T.V. joy.

The award for weirdest song of the night easily goes to Romania

You have to give the guy credit for his singing, he is nailing those high notes. That doesn’t stop it sounding horrible though.

Also, nice dress.

But probably the best song in terms of comedic potential and also the most traditionally Eurovision song is Finland’s entry, Marry Me

I agree with Graham Norton here, that is terrifying. It’s something to do with her eyes when she says “I’ll do it for you.” it makes my little Adam shrivel up and run away in case he gets hacked off and boiled.

Also, “I’ll be you slave,” “I’ll change my last name,” Jesus woman it’s 2013 you’re embarrassing all the feminists.

And furthermore, her masked backing dancers. They look like 1966 Batman villains. In fact with her psychotic grin and themed thugs she could easily be a Batman villain, The Bride! Her evil plan is to marry Batman.

Greece had the very real danger that they might win with this catchy folk/punk number.

Fortunately for Greece they didn’t, but it would have been funny to see what would have happened if they’d had to shell out the money for Eurovision.

Not only do I genuinely like the song but it has hilarious lyrics too. If you look up a translation it’s all about getting lost in a boat and not caring because you’re pissed, and at one point the boat has wheels, which is a terrible design for a boat. I suspect it might be a metaphor for something, possibly to do with not caring that your country is utterly fucked, but who knows.

Also, Greece I hate to break it to you but Alcohol isn’t free. It’s surprisingly expensive, especially in Sweden. Is alcohol free in Greece? If so that might go a long way to explaining why their economy is in the toilet.

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Moldova’s haircut bothered me for a while whilst I tried to figure out what it reminded me of. Then I realised, it looks like a prawn.

cooked-prawn

Lithuania sang second and seemed to be ignored by most people but I was in love with his wonderfully bizarre metaphor about how he has one shoe named pain and another named love.

Now I know it’s a metaphor but…for what?

The best part about this song coming so early in the night is that it allowed us to assume that every reference to love from then on in referred to this guy’s shoe. Such as this entry from Belgium which is much funnier if you interpret it as “shoes kill.”

Armenia decided to sing a song expressing their appreciation for Lonely Planet guide books.

They repeatedly ask “Who has done it?” Silly Armenians, if you just check the back of the book it tells you.

The Ukraine entry was carried into the studio by a giant ogre of some description.

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Fortunately there was an elf (he’s tried to hide it with the beard but he’s still speaking Elvish) to fight the ogre.

And that’s it for the stray humorous observations. The winner was some dull dance/pop effort like it always is and not really worth talking about. Instead why don’t you watch the best song Eurovision has ever produced.

That’s right, I love Belarus.

I’m back.

After a sizeable absence for Christmas, New Years and getting back into the swing of things at work I have returned to the interwebs to resume blogging duties.

I can’t promise that this year is going to be much better than last year in terms of updates. The plan is to have a definite Tuesday update every week without fail and try and squeeze in some smaller updates on other week days but we’ll see how that goes.

The frustrating thing is that there really is a lot of stuff I’d love to talk about and get written down for you all but my available time for blogging has dwindled significantly whilst at the same time the length, photo content, quality of videos, etc have all grown in size and complexity. So it takes me much, much longer to get a post up and I have less time to do it in. In that situation less blogging is the result.

Anyway to start us off in the New Year I thought I’d begin by talking about how I ended last year and began this year, at a traditional Japanese New Year’s or Oshogatsu.

Oshogatsu is effectively the Japanese Christmas. Whilst in the west we consider Christmas to be a time for families and New Year’s to be a time for hanging out with friends and getting wasted in Japan New Year’s is the time for families to get together.

Actually Christmas Eve in Japan is usually a time for lovers. Young couples go out on expensive dates and give each other presents before retiring to an, ahem, love hotel.

And since my girlfriend (Fran or Mariko-chan to her Japanese relatives) is half Japanese this year I got to spend a traditional Oshogatsu with her relatives.

I stayed with her older cousin’s family (sorry, no names guys I want to protect their privacy) consisting of him, his wife and their three kids. Fran’s mother is the youngest of five siblings and had Fran very late in life so whilst she is only 23 her oldest cousin is in his mid-forties and most of her other cousins are around that age.

As the oldest male in his generation said cousin is basically the defacto head of the family. Japanese people are very concerned with status, even amongst families, and so this meant as the guy in charge obviously Oshogatsu had to be at his place.

They were tremendously generous people, as pretty much every Japanese person I’ve had the good fortune to befriend has been, and during our stay made us feel more than welcome with copious amounts of food and drink.

In fact often I felt that the vast quantities of food were some kind of challenge, a test of my ability to appreciate Japanese hospitality and cooking. I did very little but eat and drink for the entire time I was there. We would get up in the morning, dress and go downstairs to snuggle under the kotatsu (a kind of table with a heating element underneath to warm your legs) and eat breakfast. Breakfast wasn’t anything vast but it was usually nice and in typical Japanese style consisted of five or six different dishes all eaten at once, including rice, fish and soup. After breakfast some tea would come out and we would snuggle under the kotatsu and talk. Then a snack would emerge and more tea. Shortly after that lunch would be served along with the first booze of the day (beer for me, whiskey and soda for everyone else). Next the television goes on and after a while another snack emerges and yet more beer. Yet by the time dinner rolls around, consisting of some vast feat of 10 or 12 dishes, I was still hungry enough to demolish it. Around about 10 o’clock I would finally emerge from my nice warm kotatsu cocoon and have a wonderful relaxing Japanese bath then bed.

Seriously, eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink and then bed. It was almost as if they were scared that if I ever got up at any point I might destroy the house or something so they needed to keep me constantly fed and sedated. Except that everyone else does it too; well, except the poor wife who has to cook everything.

Food culture in Japan is enormous. Anything and everything revolves around food. All seasons and special events are associated with special food. Apologies are made with gifts of food. Dating is primarily accomplished by girls offering boys food and boys then taking girls to restaurants. Workers bond over food. Very few people entertain in their own homes, instead most parties are held in Japanese inns with all you can eat and all you can drink offers. And conversation takes a definite second place at parties to food. People travel principally to eat or buy the food there. I thought Americans loved food and I thought Italians loved food but nobody, nobody has so thoroughly fetishised and idolised food like the Japanese.

I think the best example of this was on the last day of our trip. We visited Fran’s Uncle (who is the actual head of the family but part of a slightly smaller side) whose wife is a fantastic cook. From the moment we arrived she kept bringing out dishes constantly, some leftovers but a few brand new dishes. There was so much food in front of us that we didn’t really make a dent in it despite eating constantly from the moment we arrived. And yet when we were due to leave and get our bus she still insisted on going to the supermarket with us to buy sushi to eat as our supper.

And the beer. I was trying not to get drunk but it is damn near impossible not to. In Japan in a social setting it is considered very rude to pour your own drink. People should offer to pour each others and that way everyone stays topped up and the party stays lubricated.

There are some flaws in this system. In a big party that gets quite raucous your own drink can easily get over looked, especially if you are fairly low in the seniority order (like I, the gaijin). The best tip for that situation is to pour someone else a drink and hope they notice that your glass is empty and return the favour.

The other flaw in that system is that if everyone is topping up your drink it becomes impossible to keep track of how much you have drunk, especially if someone fills your drink without you noticing or without asking. Which Fran’s relatives did to me all the time. Almost the first question I was asked in every household was “what do you drink?” Shortly after that a beer glass would be placed in front of me and it would pretty much be full until the end of the night. I was trying not to get too drink I swear but it is impossible not to drink beer when there is a full glass sitting in front of you.

All of which has made me very thirsty. One moment.

*crack* hisssssss.

Ah… where was I?

So yes. Eat, eat, eat, drink, drink, drink. Any other time left was spent playing with the kids, who were awesome and ridiculously cute. I don’t know what it is about Japanese kids that makes them look so adorable but I want one. Particularly Fran’s baby cousin who wrote Fran a letter when we visited her, one which read;
“Dear Mariko big sister.

I love you.

Let’s play lots!”

Couldn’t you just eat her up with a spoon? It’s just a shame that her brother thought I was scary.

So staying with Japanese people is an Epicurean delight but what about Oshogatsu itself? What are the traditions and ceremonies associated with it?

Well on New Year’s Eve itself there aren’t that many traditions. Most of the focus is on New Year’s Day. This makes a lot of sense to me, for the Japanese the celebration is not so much about the end of the old year as it is the beginning of the new one. Consequently there are a lot of special “firsts” that Japanese people do at this time. The first dream, first visit to a shrine and first meal of the year all have special connotations and traditions attached. Mostly these are based on obscure Japanese word play puns where dreaming about an object that sounds like or has a similar kanji to something good can be lucky i.e. dreaming about Mt Fuji is said to be auspicious.

Other than the first shrine visit the most important of these firsts is the first sunrise of the year. Many Japanese people climb (or these days, drive to the top of) a mountain to get a good view of the first sunrise of the New Year. Fortunately for my abysmal fitness we did not do that.

New Year’s Eve does have some traditions of its own though. A relatively recent one but a popular one is for people to watch Kouhaku Uta Gassen or “Red and White Song Battle” a singing competition where celebrities are organised into teams one red (all female) and one white (all male) who take it in turn to sing songs. At the end a combination of studio judges and a home vote decide which team is the winner.

The show is considered a big honour because of its popular appeal so the top singers and artists in Japan are featured. I’m not madly keen on Japanese music to be honest but stripping away much of the extraneous crap and horrible bubblegum J-Pop and just presenting the cream of the crop has shown me that there are quite a few worthwhile Japanese artists. And my favourite Japanese artist (Angela Aki) did my favourite song of hers, tegami, which was awesome.

Plus the little girl from Ponyo (now two years older so much less cute sadly) did the Ponyo theme. Probably my second favourite Japanese song (and the only Japanese song I know the words to).

Oh and every year a foreign guest is invited onto the show. Anybody have any guesses as to which international singing sensation made it onto Japanese screens this year?

Susan Boyle.

Sadly no clips to show you lot as NHK have ruthlessly excised them from Youtube. That’s a real shame as SMAP’s “tribute” to Michael Jackson really had to be seen to be believed.

The guys won this year but if you ask me the women were robbed. I mean, they had Susan Boyle who is famous for winning singing contests.
Oooooooo, bit of a blow there then Subo.

Another New Year’s Eve tradition is to visit a shrine and hear the monks ring the bell at exactly the stroke of midnight. I did this last year and it was a lot of fun. Although Ikuta Shrine in Kobe was packed all the people’s body heat just made it nice and warm. We did shriney things like get our fortunes read, buy decorations, etc. I would have happily done it again but in the words of Fran’s cousin;

“We’re not going because it is too cold.”

Well, you can’t argue with the head of the family. Instead we watched various snowy temples around Japan ring in the New Year through the magic of television.

The final thing to do before the stroke of midnight is to eat soba (buckwheat noodles). I don’t know why, probably for good luck. Still I like soba so I was all in favour of this tradition.

New Year’s Day was a lot more interesting for me and a much more fun experience. Although we didn’t do many of the “firsts” on New Year’s Day itself we were getting ready for a big party, all of Fran’s relatives that lived nearby were coming and the real heart of Japanese New Year was about to begin. Osechi Ryori.

Osechi Ryori is a special meal prepared on or just before New Year’s Day but eaten on the 1st. Traditionally it consists of several beautifully presented dishes stacked in gorgeous boxes. Department stores will make Osechi for you and a box for a family of four can easily run into the many hundreds of pounds. These are massively elaborate and ornate dishes with an insane amount of time and effort put into their preparation.

But we didn’t make any. Why? Let’s ask Fran’s cousin.

“Because nobody likes it.”

Which is true actually. I have had left over Osechi before (most of it is eaten cold) and wasn’t very impressed an opinion apparently shared by most young Japanese. So if the food isn’t especially nice then why make it? Well as ever with the Japanese it is all about puns. Many of the foods in Osechi sound like auspicious or lucky things and so Japanese eat them as a way of summoning good luck. For example;

“Kazunoko (数の子), herring roe. Kazu means “number” and ko means “child”. It symbolizes a wish to be gifted with numerous children in the New Year.” Stolen from wikipedia.

We did make some Osechi but very little. We made some edamame, (black soybeans which sound like “health”) some kazunoku, some kamaboko, (fish cake in pink and white colours that are considered festive because they are the colours of the Japanese flag) and some kurikinton (I have no idea but it is bright yellow and sweeter than sugar).

And I say we and not Fran’s cousin’s wife because I helped! I was finally allowed to roam free of my cocoon and actually assist in helping prepare the food I consume. Japanese people are actually always really surprised that I can cook (as a rule, Japanese men cannot and eat out pretty much constantly until they marry) to the extent that I have had fawning admiration for a cheese sandwich I prepared. Consequently my beautifully made and presented Inarizushi (sushi rice in a sweet tofu wrapper) was met with much appreciation. I did feel a little bit bad when Fran’s cousin used it as an excuse to complain about how his wife always fills the parcels with too much or too little rice though. Whoops.

Although we made very little Osechi we made an enormous feast which puts most Christmas dinners to shame. Here’s a brief run down of what we ate;

Various Osechi products
Green soy beans
Fried prawns
3 different kids of fish cake
Boiled eggs
Soy simmered carrot and root
Fried chicken
Spring rolls
Sausages
Boiled Hokkaido crab (which was gorgeous)
Konnyaku (devil’s tongue potato jelly)
Pickled octopus
Raw tuna
Sushi
Salad

It was an epic dinner.

As Fran’s relatives started to arrive they started to give the kids Otoshidama (as did we, bloody sponging kids). Otoshidama are elaborately decorated envelopes filled with money and are basically the Japanese version of Christmas presents.

By the end of the day one of the kids who was about 12 had accumulated nearly 500pounds worth of cash! £500! At his age I had never seen so much money in once place. And he just keeps it in a flimsy envelope. It just goes to show that there is hardly any crime at all in Japan.

Throughout the meal we talked of various things. As a guest and a foreigner I got a lot of attention, most of it the usual stuff (can you use chopsticks, do you like Japanese food, why did you come here?), some of it startlingly original (what British films have we all seen? Um, James Bond and ….. nope, that’s it.) and a bit of it quite embarrassing. Particularly when everyone commented that my Japanese is better than Fran’s brother. Whoops, that’s going to be a bit tough for him the next time he visits.
I had expected the conversation to be a bit awkward and me to be intruding into a family situation but it was actually fine. Whenever they wanted to gossip and be a family they just switched into Japanese too fast for me to pick up. At which point I nattered to Fran or gorged myself on pickled octopus (my new favouritest thing in the world evers) Whenever they expressed a genuine interest in my opinions or me they slowed down and simplified and I joined in.

Afterwards exhausted, drunk and full the family fell into a catatonic stupor and watched television.

What we watched was this.

This is a show called Sasuke (apparently it’s called Ninja Warrior in the states) which is basically a televised obstacle course. However some of the obstacles look absolutely insanely tough! Witness, for example, the climbing task about 2:40 where the contestant has to hurl a bar upwards and hook it onto some hooks then using momentum hurl it upwards again in order to climb a wall. These people are superhuman!

The man in the video is the only contestant this year who actually managed to complete all four courses although one guy lost by a mere second. I recommend watching this and just letting your jaw hit the floor.

So good food, good drink, good company and good telly. All in all a great start to the New Year.

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